Calendar of Scottish Saints – Saint Magnus, Martyr, A.D. 1116

Saint Magnus of OrkneyArticle

The noble Cathedral of Kirkwall rose over the tomb of Saint Magnus one of the most popular of the pre-Reformation saints of Scotland. It was founded by the nephew of the martyr, twenty years after he suffered, and to it were translated the remains of Saint Magnus, which had hitherto reposed in a more humble sanctuary at Birsay. In all probability they still rest undisturbed in the cathedral which bears the name of the saint.

Like many of the early English saints, Magnus received the title of martyr rather from the popular voice than by the decision of ecclesiastical authority. As his story shows, he merited the title by shedding his blood not so much in defence of the Christian Faith as in behalf of the virtues of a Christian life, whose brilliancy excited the jealous anger of his enemies.

Saint Magnus was the son of Erlin, Earl of Orkney. He was distinguished from childhood by an uprightness of life which indicated his future sanctity. Erlin was opposed by Magnus Barefoot, King of Norway, who made him prisoner and seized his possessions, carrying off the young Magnus to act as his personal attendant. After ravaging the Western Isles the Norwegian king encountered, off the Island of Anglesey, the forces of the Norman Earls of Chester and Shrewsbury, and defeated them with much slaughter. The young Magnus refused to take any part in the unjust warfare, and remained in his ship engaged in prayer throughout the battle. He was soon after able to escape to the court of Malcolm III, where he remained for some time in safety.

Magnus bitterly lamented for the rest of his days the excesses into which he had fallen in the life of constant warfare and strife which had been his lot with the Norwegians; whatever their guilt may have been, it was his constant endeavour to atone for them by penance and prayer.

The family possessions in the Orkneys were regained on the death of Barefoot, but fresh contests were stirred up when Haco, cousin of Saint Magnus, laid claim to them for himself. To avoid bloodshed Saint Magnus agreed to a meeting with Haco in the island of Egilshay that thus the dispute might be settled in a friendly manner. Haco, however, was a traitor; and caused his own forces to be drawn round the unarmed Magnus to compass his destruction. The latter, made aware of the treachery, and unable to make any defence, prepared for his conflict by a night of prayer in the church, and the reception of the Sacraments. Then, when morning dawned, he advanced courageously to confront his murderers, and met a barbarous death with Christian fortitude. The only Catholic cathedral in Scotland which remains entire still shelters the body of a saint. It may be that God has spared it to restore it to Catholic worship through the merits of Saint Magnus. The feast, known in the Middle Ages as “Magnusmas,” was restored by Pope Leo XIII. His fair was formerly held at Watten-Wester in Caithness. A holy well at Birsay, in Orkney, bears his name.

MLA Citation

  • Father Michael Barrett, OSB. “Saint Magnus, Martyr, A.D. 1116”. The Calendar of Scottish Saints, 1919. CatholicSaints.Info. 9 March 2014. Web. 24 November 2017. <>